Stapleton stepping around fund law
GOP hopeful not making his run official yet
Walker Stapleton will inch up to the line of launching his campaign for governor this month at a private fundraiser where tickets cost as much as $10,000 per couple.
But the Republican state treasurer won’t make it official, and a key reason is money.
The longer Stapleton waits before formally announcing his bid for Colorado’s top job, the more he can help steer unlimited sums of money toward a super PACstyle group that is expected to provide his artillery during the campaign.
It’s a setup that watchdogs said could stretch the limits of Colorado election law, even as it projects Stapleton’s fundraising might — particularly toward his rivals in the GOP primary.
And it’s yet another sign that the 2018 race to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper is likely to surpass spending records in Colorado gubernatorial elections.
The upcoming Aug. 21 fundraiser for Stapleton will be held at the Cherry Hills Village home of Republican booster Greg Maffei, and the host committee is a who’s who of the party’s money class, notably beer magnate Pete Coors, Broncos legend John Elway and businessman Larry Mizel, according to a copy of the invitation.
The proceeds, however, won’t go into Stapleton’s campaign fund — as he doesn’t have one yet.
Instead, the windfall will be routed to an independent expenditure committee called Better Colorado Now, an outfit run by political consultant Andy George, a co-worker of longtime Stapleton adviser Michael
Fortney at the Denverbased firm Clear Creek Strategies.
Steering the money there helps Stapleton in a number of ways — starting with the amount of cash that can be raised.
Under Colorado law, donors can’t give more than $1,150 to Stapleton’s official campaign account once he gets in the race. That’s about a fifth of the cap on congressional campaigns.
But they can contribute as much as they want to Better Colorado Now, as it’s basically a state version of the federal super PACs that have come to dominate national elections.
Normally, special interests use these groups as a means to influence elections, but Stapleton is one of the first Colorado politicians to orient an independent expenditure committee toward his own campaign. Its official purpose is to “oppose Democrat candidates for governor,” according to state filings.
“Better Colorado Now backs candidates who are not afraid to step up and solve big problems for our state,” Gregg Engles, a member of the host committee, said in a statement.
And it’s already taking checks. As of June 30, Better Colorado Now had reported $123,000 in donations, including a $25,000 contribution from August Busch III, former CEO of the Anheuser-Busch empire.
More is sure to come after this month’s fundraiser, where ticket prices range from $1,000 for an attendee to $10,000 for a host couple.
The benefits don’t end there. Stapleton also is allowed to help solicit money for Better Colorado Now — at least for the moment.
State law prohibits coordination between gubernatorial candidates and independent expenditure committees. But because Stapleton isn’t officially a candidate yet, he can attend events such as the Aug. 21 fundraiser, where he’s listed as a special guest.
It’s for this very profitable reason that Stapleton isn’t likely to officially jump into the governor’s race for some time.
The strategy has its precedents. Several presidential candidates took this approach during the 2016 election cycle, with Jeb Bush as the most notable example.
The former Florida governor — and second cousin to Stapleton — postponed his entry into the presiden- tial race so he could frontload fundraising for his Right to Rise super PAC, which ultimately netted more than $100 million.
One of Stapleton’s Democratic rivals, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also is expected to benefit from an independent expenditure committee, although the situation is a little different.
The group was formed after Johnston entered the race, and so there’s a much brighter line between his campaign and the committee.
Still, its purpose is unmistakable: The group is called Frontier Fairness, which is Johnston’s campaign slogan, and one of its first big donors was Chris Watney — who worked with Johnston during a past effort of his to change how Colorado paid for education.
Watney and her husband contributed a combined $20,000 to Frontier Fairness, according to state election records.
“I wanted to give at a significant level because that reflects the amount of my belief in Mike and his vision for this state,” Watney said.
Analysts at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog and advocacy group, said they don’t have figures on the number of state-level politicians who are following in Bush’s footsteps and championing super PAC-similar groups.
But they said it often doesn’t take long for national fundraising strategies to catch on.
“Generally when we see things at the federal level, they trickle down to the state and local level,” said Adav Noti, who served in the Office of General Counsel at the Federal Election Commission before joining the Campaign Legal Center. “I would not be surprised if there were an upswing in governor’s races.”
But he warned the risks remained the same — in that politicians could be swayed by the unlimited amount of money that can be donated to super PACs or groups such as Colorado’s independent expenditure committees, especially when the candidates are involved early on.
“When the candidate is actively raising money for a super PAC, it’s not even a wink and a nod,” Noti said. “The only wink is a candidate pretending they are not a candidate. It’s not a wink-wink. It’s a sham.”
The approach could invite a challenge as well. The Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the FEC over Bush’s super PAC and also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether it violated federal campaign finance laws.
An FEC official confirmed the agency had received the complaint but would not say more about its status. A Justice spokeswoman would not provide an update.
In Stapleton’s case, there are a couple of reasons behind the gambit.
For one, his stable of bigmoney donors probably will send a warning to potential opponents, including Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a fellow Republican who is weighing a run.
One donor listed as a host at Stapleton’s fundraiser is Lanny Martin, who served as finance co-chair on Coffman’s 2014 campaign for attorney general.
The governor’s field is one of the deepest and richest in state history, and because of state donor limits, wealthy candidates who fund their own campaigns have a huge advantage over their less-affluent counterparts.
The wealthy include Republican Victor Mitchell, who loaned his campaign $3 million, and Democrat Jared Polis, a multimillionaire who wrote his campaign a $250,000 check in June and has the means to spend much more that.
To compete, the other candidates likely will have to pour a significant amount of money into the race — one way or another.
Ken Bickers, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, said he isn’t surprised by the appearance of super PAC-style groups in the state’s fight for governor.
“It’s becoming increasingly common in high-profile races so it was probably inevitable it would come to Colorado,” he said.
For Stapleton, Bickers added, the need to put together enough campaign cash probably outweighed the optics of doing it through an independent expenditure committee — an issue Bickers argued was mostly of interest to reporters and academics, and not regular voters.
“They don’t care about all that stuff. They don’t care about when and how people raise money,” Bickers said. “They care about what matters to them.”
The reality, he said, is that “it takes money to run an effective campaign.”
Walker Stapleton is orienting an independent expenditure committee toward his campaign.